A Brief History of Urbanism: Pre-Columbia Cities, Part 2

Here is the second installment of pre-Columbian cities. During my research, I was reminded of the vast history of advanced human settlements that pre-dated European contact and frustrated that this part of our continents history is not better known. Our history and culture are all the poorer for not paying greater heed to it and learning from their lessons.

650 AD Cahokia


Cahokia—located near modern-day St. Louis—is the earliest recorded settlement in the United States and the most important center for the peoples known today as Mississippians. At its center was Monk’s Mound, a massive structure with four terraces, 10 stories tall, and the largest man-made earthen mound north of Mexico.

The inhabitants left no written records beyond symbols on pottery, shell, copper, wood, and stone. However, the elaborately planned community, woodhenge, mounds, and burials reveal a complex and sophisticated society. The settlement was abandoned more than a century before Europeans arrived in North America. At that time, the area around it was largely uninhabited by indigenous tribes, likely do to over hunting and deforestation.

The city’s original name is unknown; as is what Native American groups are descendants of the people who originally built the site. Cahokia is the the name of an Illiniwek clan living in the area when the first French explorers arrived in the 17th century.

At the high point of its development, Cahokia was the largest urban center north of Mexico. Archaeologists estimate the city’s population at between 8,000 and 40,000 at its peak.* In 1250, its population was larger than that of London, England and larger than any subsequent city in the United States until about 1800, when Philadelphia’s population grew beyond 40,000.

Cahokia is a National Historic Landmark and one of only twenty-one UN World Heritage Sites in the United States.

1100 AD Acoma Pueblo

Ansel Adams, c.1941. from Wikimedia Commons.

Acoma Pueblo (aka Au’ku or Haakʼoh) in New Mexico, is one of the two oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States, along with Old Oraibi in Arizona.* Also known as “Sky City”, it is a Native American pueblo built on top of a 367 foot sandstone mesa.

Acoma Pueblo comprises several villages including Acomita, McCartys, Anzac and the newer subdivision of Sky Line. The Acoma people dry-farmed in the valley below Aa’ku and used irrigation canals in the villages closer to the Rio San José. Access to the pueblo is difficult as the faces of the mesa are sheer. Before modern times a hand-cut staircase carved into the sandstone provided the only access.

In 1598, Spanish conquistador Don Juan De Oñate, under orders from the King of Spain, invaded New Mexico, and began staging raids on Native American pueblos in the area. Today Acoma’s culture is almost the same as before the 1589 invasion.  While modern-day Acoma interact extensively with neighboring non-Indians, they keep up their identity as a separate community with distinctive cultural systems.

Registered as a National Historical Landmark in 1960, Acoma Pueblo became a National Trust Historic Site in 2006.

For more information on Acoma, check out this excellent Smithsonian Magazine article.

1120 BC Oraibi

Vintage postcard, "Hopi village of Oraibi, Arizona, founded c. 1120 AD."

Oraibialso called Old Oraibi—is a Hopi village in Navajo County, Arizona. Known as Orayvi by the native inhabitants, it is located on Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation.*

Archeologists speculate that a series of severe droughts in the late 13th century forced the Hopi to abandon several smaller villages in the region and merged within a few population centers. As Oraibi was one of these surviving settlements its population grew considerably, and became populous and the most influential of the Hopi settlements. By 1890 the village’s population was approximately 905. In 1890 a number of residents more receptive to the cultural influences moved closer to the trading post to found Kykotsmovi Village, sometimes called New Oraibi.

Contemporary Oraibi retains its integrity as a Hopi village, including its traditional architecture and village layout. Its resitents have maintained a more traditional Hopi way of life and resisted the adoption of the more modern culture visible in Kykotsmovi.

Oraibi is on the National Register of Historic Places (pdf). It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964.

~1100 AD Taos Pueblo

Taos Pueblo with Rio Pueblo in foreground. Wikimedia Commons

Taos Pueblo (or Pueblo de Taos) is an ancient pueblo belonging to a Taos (Northern Tiwa) speaking Native American tribe of Pueblo people. It is about 1000 years old and lies about 1 mile (1.6 km) north of the modern city of Taos, New Mexico, USA. Taos Pueblo’s most prominent architectural feature is a multi-storied residential complex of reddish-brown adobe divided into two parts by the Rio Pueblo.

One of the most traditional of the Eastern Pueblos, Taos has borrowed from Anglo- and Spanish-American cultures over centuries of contact, while retaining its cultural integrity and identity as a community. In the 17th century, the Pueblo was a center of resistance to Spanish rule which drove the Spanish from the area for 12 years.

Taos Pueblo was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. In 1992, it became a World Heritage Site. As of 2006, about 150 people live in it full-time.

For more information on Taos Pueblo, check out their website.

Next week, we’ll conclude the overview of pre-Columbian settlements. This includes the first Canadian site, which is also the first European settlement in the Americas.

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Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.